AN INTERVIEW WITH BARRE PHILLIPS
Going it alone: Barre Phillips (Picture supplied)
To talk with Barre Phillips is to tap a deep mine with rich veins of jazz history.
“You probably like a story,” the exponent of solo bass begins with delight as he relates the tale of his brother Peter’s first “big hit” as a composer, The Survivors, which premiered at the first Monterey Jazz Festival in 1958.
Written for symphony orchestra and a large percussion section, the piece called for three drummers. There were no rehearsals and when the drummers — Joe Morello, Max Roach and Art Blakey — got together Morello said “I’m almost blind” and “to play this I’d need a copy of the score in very big print to be able to see it”.
As Phillips tells it, and he was there at age 24 to play in the orchestra, “Art Blakey said ‘You’ve got to be kidding, there’s no way I can deal with this’. But Max Roach said ‘No problem. I’ll play all three parts’, and did. And so my brother ended up working quite a lot after that with Max — brass quintet, string quartet music.”
Phillips was at school when the instrument with which he would make the world’s first solo bass recording seemed to be chosen for him. In “a strong psychic experience which I can never explain” he had a vision of his name up in lights on a marquee as a bass player, so his hand shot up to select that instrument in the school orchestra. Years later, in 1978, he was in Milan when that vision materialised at a venue where he was on the bill.
His professional music career began late, after years of study culminating in a master’s degree in romance languages. He loved linguistics, semantics, poetry and philology, and was helped to delve into the dusty realms of Sanskrit and Aramaic by a Russian emigre teacher at the University of California Berkeley. At age 25, after “a real crisis”, Phillips chose to abandon his double life, stop his studies and continue life as a musician.
But his interest in language helped prepare him for a workshop he was asked to conduct much later in 1976, for a jazz festival, on what he would say about music. “I had a year to think about ‘what happens, what is this exchange, when we play music?’,” Phillips recalls.
He has been conducting workshops ever since. “There are lots of answers because there are lots of different purposes, but the one that really touches us most, in a nutshell, is sharing with another those parts of your life and being that you can’t describe with words. That’s as far as I’ve got so far. That’s the whole dangerous area of things that are spiritual — I say dangerous because nobody agrees on the vocabulary to use.”
Phillips met Ornette Coleman before he made his mark in New York, when Coleman came to meet Don Cherry and other members of the Modern Jazz Quartet, who were playing clubs in Los Angeles. But his pivotal encounter with the free jazz innovator came when Coleman sat in with Phillips’ band, which was playing six nights a week in Berkeley, and asked, ‘‘How come you’re playing this school music? Why don’t you play your own music?”
“The piano player and I agreed with him,” Phillips recalls. “We said, ‘You’re right, why are we playing this music? We had our own music to some extent. The other two guys said, ‘No, no no. That’s not on at all.’ And a week later the band was dead. It was all over. So I knew it was time to go to New York.”
At lot was happening in contemporary music and improvisation then in New York, so Phillips stayed from 1962 to 1967. But Europe drew him away gradually, initially with the George Russell Sextet, then three times with guitarist Attila Zoller, once with clarinet and sax player Jimmy Giuffre, and on two trips in a commercial jazz trio with pianist Peter Nero.
In 1967 he had friends take over his flat in New York for two months, but there was a lot of free jazz work in Germany and France and he found people “were asking me to play what I wanted to play and not as a professional bass player who can take care of the job, which was how I survived in New York”. So Europe became his home.
The idea of playing solo bass was not Phillips’ idea.
“American contemporary music composer Max Schubel was in London and wanted sound source to make tape music for Columbia University’s new electronic studios. He thought bass sounds would be great. He asked me would I record it and I did, and he said, ‘That is incredible, what you played’ and he had a small label, Opus One, and he said ‘I would like to put it out’. After much hesitation, I said, OK.”
The recording, Journal Violone, was the first solo bass album recorded. It has become a classic.
Then came Phillips’ chance at a movie role. After he had played a Sunday afternoon concert with avant garde saxophonist Marion Brown at the American Centre in Paris, two men introduced themselves. Alain Corneau, who loved free jazz, was assisting director Marcel Camus on a film, Un Ete Sauvage, and convinced him this was ideal for the soundtrack. Camus also persuaded Phillips, despite his lack of French, to play the role of a bass player in the film.
After that “it was silly to stay in New York”, so Phillips recalls, so he took up an invitation by theatre people to move into a huge flat in Paris. His time in London had been fruitful. He had worked with English jazz saxophone, bass clarinet and synthesizer player and composer John Surman, free-improvising saxophoist Evan Parker, avant garde guitarist Derek Bailey, drummer John Stevens and pianist/composer Mike Westbrook.
More impetus for his solo work came when Phillips was hired for three months rehearsing and then playing solo bass for a touring French theatre production. “The director wanted it to be very avant garde, and it was,” he recalls. “I’d never had something like that, to play my own thing and to work every day all day playing solo for three months … it was fantastic.
“The director told me, ‘You should play solo. I want to organise you a tour’. I couldn’t believe it. There were six concerts in real theatres with the real public. I wasn’t anywhere ready to do my thing, so I prepared a program — Bach, a bass sonata by my brother, and a piece for tape and bass by Charles Whittenberg, and, in the second half, my own stuff, some improvisations and some compositions. And that’s where it all started, with the outside world saying come and play solo.”
Phillips’ move into solo bass performances was, he insists, not his idea.
“I did make the decision at 25 years old — better to play music and starve to death, if that’s what it’s got to be, rather than live a false life. That was me deciding, but all the rest came to me. I didn’t have any ideas of wanting to be a great soloist. I just wanted to play. I didn’t even have enough experience at that point to realise that when you’re playing with people who have a lot more experience than you it’s so much more fun than when you’re not.”
The bassist says his work is about honesty and avoiding being too analytical.
“I did learn that to find out what your thing is as a composer or as a player, all the myriad ways there are to do your thing, you can’t be evaluating it at the same time saying ‘this is good, this is no good, this is mediocre’. You can’t. The work is about whether you are being truthful with your self. If it’s a playing thing, it’s, ‘Are you being honest with the playing thing?’, if it’s a composing thing it’s, ‘Is this what you really hear? Is this as close to it as you can get at this moment?’
“You can’t be saying, ‘This is really good, let’s go, let’s go, or this is really crap, let’s stop, let’s stop’. It’s not about that. But when the outside world says, ‘This is great, you should do this’, well then, OK, if it works, I’ll take that as a green light. I can accept that.”
Phillips believes the key to playing any music is to ensure “what you are hearing in your head, in your inner ear, corresponds with what is coming out of the instrument”.
“I had to learn that,” he recalls. “I was led to a wonderful teacher in New York and I stayed with him for three years — as it happened those were the last years of Frederich Zimmermann’s life. He brought me a lot to myself.”
Phillips says musicians need to hear the sound that naturally what comes out when they play and not allow any psychological problem to prevent that.
“Many people do not actually hear what they’re doing. When you can hear what you’re doing, your ego can intervene in a positive way with the making of music, and the influence of your environment and the people you’re working with, that can all function.
“But to be able to hear you can’t judge,” Phillips says. “You have to give up judgement and let the ear work, without you controlling it.
“To tune an instrument by ear you have to have faith in your ear, to let your ear work. You cannot control your ear. In the rest of our lives — with eating, with sex, with the use of the eyes and taking information from a painting, from reading poetry or words — we can let go and let the information come and be taken by the information. That is to me essential for a musician to be able to develop. And we don’t have anything about that in our music education.
The bass player recalls being a spaced out youth, and he is still in that zone.
“I had the ability as a kid to space out in the sound world, to lose perspective of where I am. You know, when kids are spaced out and we say, ‘Yoo hoo, where are you, you’ve gone somplace else’. I was like that with sound. The solo experience is to create a space in the acoustic space where we are together, I’m playing and you’re listening, where we can all get into this mode, which is a mood, or a psychological state where everything is happening through the ears. To me, there’s no more blah blah blah intellectual part. The nervous system is at rest. It’s just the hearing consciousness.”
Barre Phillips will play solo bass in the vaulted acoustic space of the Holy Trinity Cathedral on the Saturday and Sunday of Wangaratta Jazz and Blues Festival.
He will also play one concert with pianist Mike Nock, who he knew in New York.
They have had a chance to catch up and play together in Sydney, but Wangaratta’s reunion is one concert not to miss.